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October 26, 2001
The Road Ahead
It's only going to get worse.
VISUAL NEWS/GETTY IMAGES
Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf faces enormous difficulty keeping a lid on the growing opposition at home.

The political mood in the country has never been more belligerent. Public opinion polls taken even before the full force of anthrax hysteria engulfed the country showed that four-fifths support not only the use of ground troops in Afghanistan, but also military action against other countries in the Middle East—and three-quarters of Americans favor military action against countries outside the Middle East.

These numbers free the Bush administration from any political constraints on widening the war beyond Afghanistan. The “zero casualties” mentality that governed our military brass for the past two decades went up in smoke when the hijacked plane exploded in the Pentagon. It has now evaporated in the country as well. In the wake of the bioterrorism scare, fear and frustration will drive even higher the public frenzy to lash out with bombs and bullets at someone—anyone.

The escalation strategy is now clear, particularly after Dubya’s October 11 prime-time press conference: We will expand military strikes against other countries ad seriatim. There is no question that Iraq is next on the list. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, let slip on Meet the Press that we are selecting targets in Iraq. And when Dubya went out of his way to publicly praise Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s No. 2 and its most fervent hawk on Iraq, his goal became obvious.

The administration is already leaking selected “intelligence” designed to soften up the American people for a new war in Iraq—we are being told of meetings between the hijacker’s leader, Mohammed Atta, and Iraqi secret service officers in Czechoslovakia, and of the British-educated Iraqi scientist Rihab Tabar (nicknamed “Dr. Germ”) as the mastermind behind the anthrax attacks (even though the former head of Russia’s chemical and biological warfare program—Ken Abilek, now a U.S.-based consultant—told Ted Koppel on Nightline that he is convinced al-Qaeda purchased the anthrax and other toxins and technology from Russian scientists left impoverished when their huge chemical and biological weapons establishment of 30,000 technicians was dismantled). But the sanguineous despot Saddam Hussein is easy to hate, and it will take very little to convince Americans that he must be the next target in the long war.

We are plunging down that bloody road with no debate in Congress. Indeed, major figures in both parties—like Joe Lieberman and John McCain—are already voicing their support for hitting Iraq. And this even though the Gulf War demonstrated that Saddam cannot be toppled by air power alone—it will require investing the entire country with a huge army of occupation to end the Ba’ath regime’s sorry history. The use of tactical nuclear weapons in Afghanistan is already being called for by congressional Republicans—not just hard-right ignoramuses like Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, but also moderate Long Island Rep. Peter King and influential Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer. When an invasion of Iraq confronts our finger-in-the-wind elected representatives with the prospect of thousands of their constituents coming home in body bags, the cry of “nuke Saddam” will be widespread.

However, Bush will not move with full force against Iraq until the Taliban falls. And those in the punditocracy like the Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt—who predicted on CNN that the Taliban will collapse “within a week”—are dreaming. The air campaign to pave the way for the minority Northern Alliance’s entrance into Kabul is only stiffening the resistance among Southern Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority, for the fratricidal history of Afghan civil war makes the prospect of ethnic cleansing in the event of an Alliance victory very real.

International politics is rather like chess; one has to be able to think eight to ten moves ahead. That’s something American presidents of the past 50 years have not been very good at—they cannot see farther than the next election. Bush is no chess player, and the madness of militarizing the campaign against terrorism becomes clearer every day, for war has its own momentum—once set in motion, the machine operates on its own inexorable logic, divorced from rational political goals.

U.S. military action in Afghanistan is already outpacing Bush’s murky political objectives. American efforts to put together a coalition government under the aegis of the octogenarian King Zahir have stalled amid the squabbling of the heroin-dealing warlords who are our purchased allies. Pakistan, of course, detests the Northern Alliance, and neither has it forgotten that the king tried to annex part of Pakistan in the ’60s.

President Pervez Musharraf will face enormous difficulty in keeping the lid on growing opposition in Pakistan if a hastily cobbled-together regime considered hostile to Pakistani interests takes symbolic power in Kabul. Musharraf’s limited purge of his military and intelligence chiefs is an admission of weakness, not a demonstration of strength: More than a quarter of Pakistan’s military are Pashtun, and, in addition to the ethnic and religious sympathies that bind much of the officer corps and most of the Pakistani intelligence service to the Taliban, the corruption of the Pakistani military by heroin-trafficking links them economically to the Taliban-supporting local Afghan chieftains as well.

In this context, the American bombing has created what the BBC has rightly characterized as a “humanitarian, political and security crisis” on the Afghan-Pakistani border, where tens of thousands of hunger-mad Afghan refugees are massing. The BBC and others have filmed the Taliban rounding up the men, separating them from the women and children, and stocking them in barbed-wire camps for conscription or ethnic cleansing. But whether Pakistan continues to keep them out at gunpoint, or lets them enter (something that this country, which is $140 billion in debt and already hosting some 4 million refugees, cannot afford to do), these refugees constitute a political powder keg whose existence further destabilizes Musharraf and increases his vulnerability to a coup. (If he goes, who controls Pakistan’s nukes?)

Add to this volatile mix the mounting civilian casualties from American bombing (including the destruction of a hospital, confirmed by U.N. observers) and one wonders how long Musharraf can hold on—particularly with India using the war as cover to step up its military activity in Kashmir, thus inflaming both the Pakistani military and the masses in the street. Moreover, Seymour Hersh’s fine reporting in The New Yorker has underscored just how fragile is the sclerotic Saudi princes’ hold on their country. No wonder both Pakistan and the Saudis are pleading for Bush to stop the bombing. If the terrorists think the air campaign in Afghanistan has made the endlessly corrupt Saud family ripe for overthrow, they could strike the highly vulnerable Saudi oil fields, ending the cash flow that allows the 6,000 princes to stay in power (an eventuality which would drive oil to $100 a barrel and send the world economy plummeting rapidly into a Depression).

Yet these gaping flaws in Bush’s war policy are not being challenged by congressional Democrats, whose leaders—Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt—still harbor illusions that they are viable presidential candidates, and so are loath to challenge on any front the conduct of a popular war. Now, in the wake of the anthrax scare that sent the cowardly House skedaddling, the Bushies are floating a proposal to let the president govern by decree for at least 30 days without any congressional approval or restraint if he decides a “national emergency” warrants it. The power of the purse is Congress’ only real rein on a president, and abandoning it even temporarily would blow a major hole in our constitutional system of checks and balances that could not easily be repaired.

If you think the country wouldn’t sit still for such a measure, think again. Just look at the exaggerated anthrax scare—after all, as Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel pointed out on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, “280 people would have to die of anthrax to equal the risk of driving 50 miles in a car (about one in a million).” Yet Americans are gorging themselves on overpriced Cipro (10 bottles cost $2,100 in New York but only $160 in Mexico), thus leaving the pill-poppers prey to lethal, antibiotic-resistant strains of influenza and other diseases; buying useless gas masks (ineffective without full body suits); and flooding emergency rooms with demands for anthrax tests at the first runny nose.

State and local health systems, the first line of defense against bioterrorism, are already teetering on the edge of collapse, their overworked personnel exhausted to the point of limited competence. If the public has become so deranged at what is, at the moment, a very limited danger, imagine what happens when our citizenry finds out that our country is completely unprepared for the kind of massive deaths the spread of plague or Ebola-type viruses, all airborne, could engender.

The likelihood of Bush being granted sweeping powers will measurably increase when Republicans almost certainly retake both houses of Congress next year during a deepening war with more U.S. casualties. Meanwhile, the rush to shred our civil liberties is unimpeded. The House rejected the compromise anti-terrorism bill that Rep. John Conyers and others managed to engineer in the Judiciary Committee, and substituted for it the much more draconian Senate version, which Tom Daschle helped whip through the Senate with only one dissenting vote—Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. (In the House, only 75 Democrats stood up to oppose the unadulterated Ashcroft package.)

At this point, it is hard to see a way out of the crisis the long war is creating for our democracy. One is reminded of the old Russian proverb: An optimist is only a pessimist who has not yet heard the bad news.


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